As the demolition of the old I-95 overpass opens up a channel of real estate across the northern boundary of Providence's Jewelry District, plans are being laid for a new belt of development to encircle this historic neighborhood, which lies across the Providence River from College Hill. An amoeba-like growth of the Brown University campus will reach out and connect with a similar one from the campus of Johnson and Wales, fully separating the area from the heart of downtown. This expansion is hailed by editorialists and politicians alike as a foundation for redefining the area from a rusted-out industrial park to a shimmering new "knowledge district."
Hailed as a vision that will put Providence on course to become a focal point in the biotechnology and IT markets, this "knowledge district" is central to the knowledge economy that a coalition of business leaders, politicians and University administrators have been planning in recent years as the city's future. A large part of this process will be developing connections between Brown's expanding life sciences research facilities and new businesses that have moved to the area, such as NABsys Inc., which was founded by a Brown alum to market DNA sequencing techniques developed at Brown.
What does this expansion on the part of Brown mean for our relationship with our city and its economy, particularly given this blurring of boundaries between the University as a center of research and the city as real estate for businesses? Is this an ideal solution to the phenomenon of brain drain, which otherwise carries students educated in Providence to distant locales, as its proponents suggest? Or is this a further stage of the process in which Brown shapes the city to its ends, gentrifying diverse neighborhoods and absorbing large amounts of valuable land into its tax-free hoard, while the city struggles to keep schools open?
In pursuing this mode of expansion, decision-makers at Brown are once again following in the footsteps of our venerated model, Harvard, where partnerships between research institutions and the private sector have created a so-called knowledge economy in Cambridge. The pursuit of this vision, however, has clear consequences for the Brown community and the people of Providence.
Several recent opinion columns ("In defense of Brown, Inc.," Sept. 13; "A Brown Inc. education," Sept. 29) have addressed our school's current focus on expanding graduate programs and redefining itself as a major research university. Though whether this shift is justifiable is clearly a contentious issue, all parties seem to agree that the expansion of graduate programs will drastically change the Brown experience. As was pointed out by Herald columnist Sissi Sun '12 ("Transfers appreciate Brown's non-corporatization," Sept. 28) the quality of the undergraduate experience at larger and more research-focused universities can be lower in everything from aesthetics to meal plan options than at institutions more focused on undergraduate education. In a school governed by a Corporation that already does not communicate directly with the majority of people who make up Brown, increasing the sprawl of the institution can only reduce community access to decision-making processes.
The physical expansion of the University into an area separated by water from the main campus will also entirely change the meaning of Brown as a place. The current geographic unity of Brown's campus is a reflection of the extent to which individual students unify disciplines and interests in their daily lives. The distance between certain parts of the University, such as the engineering laboratories at Barus and Holley and the French department at Rochambeau, for example, or between Perkins and anywhere, already contributes to the development of separate cultural spheres. In comparison, what are the implications of having a shiny, isolated new Brown full of pre-professionals staring up at us on College Hill from south of downtown?
Brown students often note the existence of a bubble that separates College Hill from the rest of Providence and the world. As the school expands towards downtown, Brown's bubble will either have to grow with it or burst. Given that Brown's current expansion involves entirely transforming the area into which it moves itself, as it always has done in the past, the latter scenario is unlikely. When large numbers of Brown students and the businesses that cater to them moved into Fox Point, a fusion of Cape Verdean diaspora and college culture did not develop. Rather, the old Fox Point, with all of its character, vanished. It is reasonable to predict the same for the Jewelry District.
Brown's plans for expansion are already underway and unlikely to change. The vision that motivates them, that of Brown taking a leading role in the development of Providence's economy, is compelling, but nevertheless one-sided.
Providence is a diverse city with a lot of history. To cast the University's ambitions for expansion into biotechnology as the future of such a place is to ignore the range of realities that define it. As students, we should neither be lulled by this self-congratulatory language nor unprepared for the repercussions of expansion for our undergraduate experience.
Ian Trupin '13 is concentrating in biology. He can be reached at
Ian_Trupin (at) Brown.edu.